The dust is still settling from the US’s weekend attack on Syria’s chemical weapons. That makes predictions difficult.
But one very real possible outcome of the attack is that the global chemical weapons ban may finally be enforced even on smaller countries.
This could have direct implications for Israel, making it even less likely that Syria or Hezbollah, if it gets such weapons, might use them if there was a conflict, and makes it less likely that a chemical weapons misfire could end up on the Golan Heights as has happened with many tank shells.
While this is no certainty, even the possibility is worth noting.
During World War I, chemical weapons were used on a massive scale, resulting in more than 100,000 fatalities and a million casualties. The losses were so great on all sides and so horrific that by 1925, the world had endorsed a ban on chemical weapons use.
From then until the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, chemical weapons were stockpiled, but were barely ever used on battlefields. For example, during World War II, the powers fighting in Europe could have deployed chemical weapons on the battlefield, but chose not to.
Major powers, like the US and Russia, never used chemical weapons against each other throughout the Cold War, and for decades, smaller states did not have them.
That eventually changed in the 1980s. The largest users of chemical weapons since the 1980s have been smaller states, like Iraq and Syria. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran and against the Iraqi Kurds. The Bashar Assad Syrian regime started to use chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels possibly in 2011, but frequently as of the end of 2012.
Then something unprecedented happened. Then-US president Barack Obama put forth the idea of military intervention to stop the use of chemical weapons.
The US was not going to intervene to stop every genocide. While the US intervened to prevent mass-killings in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011, those were the exceptions.
No one intervened to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Srebrenica in 1995, Darfur in 2003 and even Obama only drew his redline at chemical weapons use – not at mass killings that don’t involve chemical weapons.
Obama’s redline regarding chemical weapons meant there being a ban even for small states – and not just one that the great powers followed and that existed merely on paper. In fact, his threat to attack Syria in 2012 led to it giving up most of its chemical weapons at the time and to abide by the ban from August 2013 until March 2015.
However, he then stepped back from his redline, which led to a number of major problems, including Assad starting to use chemical weapons again in 2015 and continuing to use them until April last year.
Then, US President Donald Trump turned up the heat by attacking Syria with dozens of Tomahawk missiles. There was a partial respite from chemical weapons use since then, with Assad “only” using them once from April last year until February 2018.
But with Trump sending signals that the US wanted out of Syria following the defeat of ISIS, Assad felt comfortable enough to start using chemical weapons again.
The weekend attack on Syria’s chemical weapons program was still narrow enough that most are predicting it will not stop Assad from continuing to retake territory from his various Syrian rivals.
However, it may signal Trump’s determination to stand by Obama’s redline even as the US otherwise reduces its Syrian footprint, perhaps raising the cost of chemical weapons’ use enough that Assad permanently backs off from them.
If he is going to defeat the rebels anyway, even without using chemical weapons, and Syria stands to lose more by getting punished by the US than it gains by the increased speed of winning through using those weapons, he may decide the cost is too high.
There was a move in the mid-2000s to get the world to adopt the doctrine of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” The idea was that if a nation commits genocide or cannot prevent genocide in its territory, then other nations and the global community have an obligation to step in and help out.
This was a large part of the basis for the international intervention in Libya.
But then the Libyan intervention was seen by many as a failure since the state fell apart into civil war.
This is one of many reasons why the world has stood by instead of helping to fight against ISIS, even while over 500,000 people were thought to have died in Syria.
While R2P has not succeeded in enforcing a ban on genocide, ironically, a combination of an Obama idea and a Trump enforcement may lead to R2P being enforced for chemical weapons.
It will not be the first time that international law only started to fully work when the ink of the documents was enforced by blood and steel.